I can’t count the number of times I’ve told clients and students “be gentle with yourself.”
"Take care of your own needs."
"Put your own oxygen mask on first so that you can take care of everyone else."
"Fill up your cup."
"Make time for friends and cups of tea, chocolate, sex, fresh air, pedicures. You deserve it."
"You deserve to be happy."
So easy to say, all of these things.
Not always so easy to do.
Not even easy when your career involves talking about this stuff. Which is why I love this recent piece called "Self Care Means Taking Care of You!" by my friend Caitlin Fitzgordon, a postpartum doula and childbirth educator in Brooklyn. Caitlin writes beautifully about her own struggles to balance the normal sacrifices of devoted mothering with a genuine need to prioritize herself. She says:
Losing yourself might be considered a normal part of motherhood. Your old self is gone and a new self develops—one hard-wired to take care of a new, delightful, confusing, needy person. Sometimes, though, it goes too far.
It’s true. In the early weeks/months/years it’s appropriate — and can feel awesome — to totally throw yourself into motherhood, even if that means you look, from the outside, like you’ve lost yourself. But at some point, you’re not just Becoming A New Mother anymore, you are one, and your normal, human, adult needs come rearing up and need to be fit back in. Not in place of caring for your child, but alongside. Finding a place for yourself can be oddly difficult — not just because it’s logistically hard, but because it can feel weird and wrong to even have needs. Caitlin reflects honestly and candidly about her own excesses, and I admire her courage in saying, essentially, “yeah, no matter how much of this I might tell my own clients, this stuff is hard for me, too.”
Boy do I see my clients struggle with this stuff, and boy do I struggle with this stuff myself, sometimes, too. It can take different forms — for some moms it’s literally that they don’t make time for themselves, to go out with friends, to get to the gym, to sometimes take naps. My own kids aren’t babies anymore, so I get a lot more time than new mothers do, but no matter how many times I re-learn this, I still have phases where the balance is really hard. For me it’s less about what my free time looks like and more about my mindset — I sometimes forget that my own happiness is not only a priority but a necessity.
A necessity. Like, how feeding my children is a necessity.
It’s so easy to fall into the trap of considering a mother’s happiness only a luxury, something you hope “someday” to make time for, or something kid-dependent (“I should be happy as long as my kids are thriving and my work is getting done”). Well, I think that a lot of the things we took for granted when we were childless are now luxuries (time, certain kinds of privacy, flexibility, comforts). But not happiness. The idea that you’re supposed to “do without” happiness as long as your kids and work are getting handled; the idea that you should be stoic enough enough to handle everything and never need much for yourself is, um, totally freaking misogynist, puritanical and basically effed up.
And yet, weirdly easy to buy into!
And, once you’ve gotten a little mired in it, and you’ve either started yelling at everyone a lot (Caitlin) or become depressed and withdrawn (me), it’s a total pain in the butt to get out of because of Guilt (“I should be more stoic and need less and do more!”) and Hopelessness (“It’s pointless to take a fifteen minute nap when I’m this tired/ I’ll never have time to get to yoga anyway”).
It’s so ugly.
And what’s really tricky is that a lot of the time, the very obligations that leave us feeling trapped are things we also love: Taking care of our kids. Nurturing our careers. Connected time with our partners. Tending to our home. It’s not that we shouldn’t take these commitments seriously, it’s that we need to keep an eye on whether they’re in a balance that still makes us happy. And if the answer is no, we need to take that seriously.
There’s not a quick cure or a permanent fix. But I think sometimes it helps to just insist you go to that spinning class at the gym even though you feel sad and lumpy and you don’t have time. You go anyway, and you sweat and feel better.
Or push your sorry ass out the door and have a drink with friends even though you feel it’s all so exhausting and you are also now stinging-with-guilt-because-you-were-kind-of-a-total-martyry-beeyotch-to-your-partner-about-the-fact-that-he-was-going-to-do-what-we-don’t-call-babysitting-but-which-he-was-totally-thinking-of-as-babysitting. You go anyway, and you get there and laugh and laugh and laugh and feel light, because friendship sloughs the stress off you.
Or you send your husband out to dinner with your kids when you’re exhausted, even though you work full time and feel guilty that you “should” want to be with them every waking minute. You do it anyway. And then your apartment is quiet and you lie in bed and meditate or masturbate or read a book or browse Facebook, or I don’t know, whatever you like to do, and find that you are starting to feel a little better.
And a little better with the next thing, and better still with the next and then suddenly you find yourself saying, “I’m starting to feel human again,” not because you’ve stopped being serious about your work or about your kids or about your other obligations, but because you’ve started being serious about taking care of yourself. Too. Being an adult, being a mother, being a wife, being someone with a career and a life — these things shouldn’t mean you don’t also get to feel human.
It doesn’t get all solved with one pedicure. Taking care of yourself is like taking care of your kids! You do it in tiny bits, little by little, making small incremental progress, reassessing all the time to see whether what felt good last month is still good now. It may start, though, by insisting: I will not succumb to guilt for needing some human comforts! And it helps to remember, as Caitlin wisely notes, it’s not something you do once, not something you master and are then done. It’s something you practice forever.
What helps you take care of yourself?